In an interview with Conference Inference  editor Emily Henderson, Nidhi S. Sabharwal discussed inequalities of access to conference opportunities in India.
Figure 1: Participation in Conferences by Gender (in a high-prestige institution)
EH: Nidhi, can you explain first of all where conferences come into your wider research on inequalities in Indian higher education?
NS: Equitable access to professional development opportunities such as conferences is an indicator of institutional commitment to achieving diversity and inclusion of diverse social groups on campuses. At the Center for Policy Research in higher Education (CPRHE), we embarked on a research project to study how diversity and inclusion amongst students and faculty members is being achieved at institutions of higher education in India (see findings in policy brief form). The study utilised a mixed-method approach which combined quantitative and qualitative methods for the collection and analysis of data. The empirical findings drawn on in this post are interviews with 200 people (faculty members, faculty in-charge of cells and committees and administrators) and administrative document analysis. In the stage of massification, with a gross enrolment rate (GER) of 25.2 (MHRD, 2017), India’s higher education institutions are serving a diverse student body. However, diversity in faculty composition and equal opportunities for professional development, such as participation in conferences, for women and the socially excluded groups remains a distant dream.
EH: So what were your findings relating to access to conferences for different groups?
NS: Our study shows that access for women and faculty members from the disadvantaged groups (rural, outside the region/state, ‘lower caste’ and indigenous groups) to professional development opportunities (including conferences) across fields of study is lower than that enjoyed by men, higher caste social groups, those in urban areas and those from a region/state where a higher education institution is located. The gap is particularly large in elite, high prestige institutions offering engineering subjects. For example, in an elite institution, of the 3691 various professional development programmes attended by the faculty members in this institution over the year 2013-14, only 7% of women faculty members got a chance to participate in international and national conferences (see figure 1 above). The majority of those who were able to attend any type of conference (international, national, summer/winter workshops, writing and publication workshops) were male faculty members.
Similarly opportunities to participate in conferences were lower for the ‘lower’ caste (especially the Scheduled Castes social group, the former ‘untouchables’ for whom there are provisions in the Constitution of India protecting them from acts of discrimination, cf Sabharwal, 2015) as compared to higher castes. For example, close to 84% of faculty members from the higher castes participated in national conferences vis-à-vis other backward classes (9%) and SCs (6%). As one moves up the caste hierarchy from low-caste to middle- and upper-caste groups, participation in conferences also increases, providing evidence of “graded inequalities in access to opportunities in the caste system” (Ambedkar, 1935). Graded inequalities are the kind of inequalities that are inherent in the caste system; that is, the higher the grade of the caste, the greater the opportunities. Our findings also suggest that faculty members from urban areas and from within state where the institution is located, had greater access to professional development opportunities vis-à-vis rural and those belonging to the same state. On average, of those who participated in conferences in the year 2013-2014, close to 75% of the faculty members were from urban areas and close to similar proportions (64%-70%) belonged to the state where the higher education institutions that employed them were located.
EH: This is really interesting, but also deeply concerning. Could you clarify if these inequalities are the same across different institution types?
NS: Participation in conferences by women faculty members and those from lower castes was better in institutions that were lower in ‘prestige’ and offering humanities and social sciences subjects’ vis-à-vis elite institutions. Gender and caste inequalities in participation in conferences, however, persist here too. Figure 2 shows gender inequalities in participation in conferences in a higher education institution offering humanities and social sciences. For example, participation in international conferences for men was two times more than that of women. Similarly, we see a gender gap in access to writing and publication workshops, and refresher courses (figure 2).
Figure 2: Participation in Conferences by Gender (in a HEI offering humanities and social sciences)
EH: Why do you think these inequalities occur?
NS: Our research interactions with higher education teachers provide us with reasons for these social disparities in accessing professional development opportunities. Limited encouragement from the part of management for professional development may take the form of restrictions in days to take academic leave to attend conferences. There may also be an absence of orientation programmes organised by the administration on the academic potential and benefits of participating in conferences (other than requirements for promotion). Both of these factors may impact all faculty members irrespective of caste, gender or other demographics. Furthermore, the following factors disadvantage and marginalise women more than men, and faculty members from the socially excluded groups:
- Being under-represented as faculty members,
- Being placed lower in academic hierarchy (a higher proportion of women and socially excluded groups are at junior levels),
- Having limited access to social networks (‘jaan-pehchaan’)
- Knowing or not knowing the regional language (as expressed by a faculty member, “the office workers are mostly from same state and I belong to this state, hence language often helps me to understand the procedures to avail these opportunities…”)
These factors contribute to the development of a ‘chilly climate’ (Turner, Myers, and Creswell, 1999) for women and marginalised groups within higher education institutions. Feelings of isolation, lack of support from seniors and lack of information about channels of promotion and professional development opportunities were some dynamics that contributed to the ‘chilly climate’ experienced by the socially excluded groups. Frequently, though not always, differences also fall out according to seniority, with senior faculty being ‘suspicious’ of the junior faculty, especially when it is related to participating in conferences. As it was explained during our research interactions with faculty members, ‘there is a fear from the side of senior faculty that junior faculty may skip their teaching duties in the name of attending seminars and conferences…. and so they want to closely observe the latter and restrain and warn them from principal’s office by emails referring to the number of classes missed by them enforcing strict leaves calculations, and other administrative procedures.’
EH: Thank you for all of your insights, which are extremely valuable. What are your parting words for Conference Inference?
NS: Limited access to professional development opportunities, such as participation in conferences has implications on one’s academic growth and upward mobility. Participating in conferences and conference papers is a professional requirement for promotion as it contributes to scoring points in the Academic Performance Index (API is a measure which is used for recruitment and promotion of academics across universities & colleges in India. It comprises of indicators related to one’s measure of performance in activities of teaching-learning, co-curricular and research activities (this includes participation in conferences; cf Tilak and Mathews, 2017, pp. 105-140). Importantly, participating in conferences offers ways of knowing that ‘there is a world out there’ (Torres-Olave, 2011) and develops the ability to imagine to be a part of an academically constructed community, with whom one can feel a sense of belonging independent of ‘territorial context’ (Kanno and Norton, 2003). Access to such imagined spaces of academic network offers opportunity for ‘knowledge production, career growth and friendship’ (Henderson and Burford n.d.).
Nidhi S. Sabharwal is currently Associate Professor at the Centre for Policy Research in Higher Education (CPRHE), National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration (NIEPA), New Delhi. Dr Sabharwal has previously served as the Director at the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, New Delhi.
Dr Emily Henderson is the Centre for Education Studies representative for the International Development GRP at Warwick University. She is also co-convener of the International Research and Researchers Network. This post was first published on Emily’s blog, Conference Inference and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.
 This post was first published on Conference Inference and is reproduced here with the blog and the author’s permission.